A Collectible In A Small Box
The Matchbox series of miniature cars and trucks were manufactured by the Lesney Company of the United Kingdom. The Lesney Company was founded in 1947 by Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith. They were not related but had served together in the Royal Navy during World War II. Lesney stands for Les (Lesile), Ney (Rodney). Like so many companies both men did not start out to make the Matchbox miniature cars and trucks that would make them wealthy and provide hours of enjoyment to little kids.
Lesney began as a die casting company to manufacture castings and small parts for farming and automotive companies. One of their major products was a small press to press small pieces of bread into bait to be used on a fishing hook. Almost every kid from that period can remember bread was the main bait to hook that big fish. "The Lesney Bread Bait Press - Prevents The Bait From Crumbling." The fishing press was marketed in a small matchbox. During the early Korean War the company branched out into the toy business and made small parts for a space gun. When Queen Elizabeth was crowned in 1953 the company manufactured a realistic Coronation Coach and horses. The Coronation Coach is valued at $80-$200.
Rodney Smith left the company and was replaced by an engineer named Jack O’Dell. Jack O’Dell is credited with developing the Matchbox miniature car and truck cars. There are two different stories on how he hit upon the idea of making a miniature car and truck that would fit into a matchbox. One story is that his daughter could not take a toy to school unless it could fit into a matchbox. More recently the real story appears to be that his daughter each day brought home worms or spiders in a matchbox. To prevent this from happening each day he made the first Matchbox toy.
The first Matchbox vehicle was a steam roller. It was a scaled down version of the larger one that the Lesney Company manufactured. The other three issued in that first year were a dump truck, cement mixer and a road roller. Matchbox cars and trucks hit the market in 1953. The Massey Harris Tractor sells in the range of $550 - $750. The first models had metal cast wheels which were replaced by plastic wheels. Rubber treads were used on the crawler types vehicles. Green and black for bulldozers, grey or green for the Army vehicles and the snow vehicles had white ones. For many years paper decals were employed as the various advertising or names on the vehicle. Then decals for a time, but there was a quick return to the paper ones again for the simple reason the decals were difficult and made a mess in the factories.
The other rare items connected to the launch of the first four Matchbox vehicles is the catalogue. The first catalogue that was issued in 1954 the sky is the limit for a value. It is as famous as the Honus Wagner tobacco baseball card. At present only one has turned up and is in the collection of an individual. It is known that not many were printed but more than one must still exist.
By the end of 1954 eight Matchbox cars and trucks were available. If one has a Matchbox from that early period you will notice that the name on the box is "Moko-Lesney". Moko is the name of the firm that Lesney gave the marketing and distributing rights to the Matchbox line to. In the early years the cars and trucks were sold through drug stores, small corner stores and ice cream shops.
The key for the Matchbox’s success was the high quality of the car or truck, and the price. In the early 1960’s the typical price was 39 to 47 cents depending on the vehicle.
The original plan of the Lesney Company was to slowly manufacture 75 different cars and trucks, but as the miniatures became more popular this number was soon surpassed.
The marketing team at the company quickly discovered that if the company put out trucks with company names it increased sales. Put out delivery trucks with different real company names and the collector would want to have them all in his collection.
In the 1960’s the company began to sell their Matchbox cars, and trucks throughout the world and in the United States. Fred Bonner was in charge of marketing in the United States and he convinced the company to not only sell their British make cars and trucks in the US, but to begin to put out vehicles that Detroit manufactured. Kids wanted the British models, but also the market could be expanded by giving them vehicles they recognized.
The marketing strategy carried over to produce trucks connected to products of a specific product and company. In Australia delivery trucks carried the logo of the Australian - Arnott’s Biscuits, Germany - Sunlight Seife, Nestle’s Milk, in the US Tastee Bread. The Matchbox trucks that were only sold in a specific country that had that product have created another area for the collector. Since many were manufactured in small numbers their values have increased over the years. These vehicles are referred to as "promotionals".
The Iso Grifo model has been found to have been issued in at least 14 different examples. Many rare models can sell for over $7,000, but the majority of Matchbox cars or trucks sell for less than $50. Of course the value is increased depending on condition and if the box is still intact. Having the box especially the early ones where the name is "Moko-Lesney sell at a premium. The reason is that Lesney bought out the Moko Company which stood for the owner Moses Kohnstam.
Over the decades the Matchbox has expanded to include, trucks/lorries, passenger cars, taxis, tractors, motorcycles, caravan campers of various types, trailers, military vehicles, special issues ordered by specific companies, the number has become endless. Many collectors specialize in the number of London double decker buses that have been produced since 1954. While the buses may appear the same the advertising and names of bus companies have changed over time.
In 1957 the company marketed an entire new line of Matchbox cars and trucks entitled The Yesterday Line. The line focused on cars, trucks, buses, race cars of days gone by. A few in the line include the 1910 Benz Limo, 1914 Prince Henry Vauxhall, 1926 Bugatti race car, 1929 Leyland Titan bus. Other livery trucks had names of companies still in existence or long gone. The line was geared to the nostalgic collector.
In the 1960’s to increase sales the Lesney Company began to market accessories sets large gift sets for kids and the collector. The company moved into this direction after the introduction of Hot Wheels in the United States. Mattel’s Hot Wheels began to market race tracks, service stations and other items for their cars and trucks.
In 1965 Matchbox marketed the "Grand Prix Race Cars Accessory Set. All the thrills of motor racing. A complete race track painted in many gay colours. Grandstands, bridges, banked turns, scaled for your Matchbox cars." A complete Fire Station Accessory Set was sold in stores. Also a BP Gas Station Set was sold in large department stores and could be ordered at your local BP gas station. Many of these sets if complete with the box (which is important) sell for several hundred dollars.
The other collectible item connected to the Matchbox and Models of Yesterday Line are the catalogues. Catalogues which were usually on the counter at your local store have become collectible and valuable. Most were looked at kept for a short time and usually eventually thrown away. The 1969 Matchbox-Lesney Fred Bonner TV Ad Booklet has sold for $120.00 on eBay. The booklet pictures a television set with rabbit ears "Matchbox Makes the Scene On the Screen."
Pocket catalogues from the 1960’s sell in the range of $20 or more depending on the specific year and what appears on the front.
For further information on Matchbox and Models of Yesterday collectibles one can join the Matchbox Collectors Club online for free. The site is filled with history, prices, all types of information and even auctions. Just google Matchbox Club. Several large price cards are on the market, as well.
- Model of Yesterday 1929 British racing green Bentley - $200.
- Model of Yesterday Fowler Showman’s Engine - bright red with Lesney Amusements. $70.
- Matchbox Autotransporter Set. Auto transporter with five cars - $65.
- Matchbox Ford Mustang. Orange is the rarest colour - $600. Other colour versions are worth about $60.
- Matchbox Gift Set G1. Contains ambulance, jeep, double decker bus, Pickfords moving truck, caravan, Commer open milk truck, tow truck - $750.
- Matchbox Mercedes Coach #68 -$25.
- 1970 Matchbox Lesney Catalogue - $95.
- 1950’s Matchbox Removal Service - $45.
- Model of Yesterday 1927 Foden Steam Wagon - Whitebreads Ale and Stout - $10.
- 1964 Matchbox Mountaineer Snow Plow - $30.